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March in Westminster: What's on the horizon

28 February 2017

March marks the Government's self-imposed deadline for triggering Article 50 and commencing the formal Brexit process.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond will present his final Spring Budget before the major annual financial statement moves to Autumn. Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and controversy over the financial health of the NHS, will he prove resistant in the face of a barrage of calls for further public spending commitments?

Here, DeHavilland's expert Monitoring Consultants outline the issues to watch in each sector.

Education

Philip Hammond’s Spring Budget is on the horizon, but speculation around its contents thus far providing little concrete insight as to the possible impact on the higher education sector. However, BBC Economics Editor Kamal Ahmed reported in early February that Mr Hammond has briefed the Cabinet that the Budget’s focus wouls be on infrastructure spending, productivity, skills, research and development support.

The Higher Education and Research Bill edges towards its conclusion this month, with its consideration at Committee in the Lords having concluded and Report Stage due to commence on 6 March. Plans have been announced by the Government to incorporate into the Bill a new system of fast track degrees whereby students would be be able to complete a degree in two years, with tuition fees set at £13,000 a year.

As the effects of Brexit become clearer, the futures of academics and students from other EU countries have come into question. With no cast iron guarantee from the Government about their immigration status, the third of university academics who are from outside the UK face an uncertain fate.

Energy and Environment

For the Energy Sector, the Spring Budget is expected to include an announcement on the future of the Levy Control framework. Minister have previously promised to ensure the impact of the levy is as low as possible and to support the projects that need it most.

February saw a number of energy companies announce price rises for their customers, leading to criticism from MPs and press reports of the Government threatening to intervene in energy prices, including the possibility of an energy price cap. The Government’s policy is expected to be set out in a Consumer Green Paper due to be published in April, but there may be further details announced in the Budget.

Several energy companies who increased their prices this month pointed to the cost of Government initiatives such as smart meters. The Government is expected to publish its Smart Systems Plan in spring 2017.

There have also been press rumours that there will be an announcement in March on the sale of the Green Investment Bank.

Financial Services

February produced some positive results for the economy, with Lloyds seeing a huge boost in profits and figures, as announced by the Treasury on 21 February, and January recording the biggest Budget surplus in over a decade. This strong performance could put Chancellor Philip Hammond in a position to ease some of the Treasury’s planned austerity in the next financial year when he delivers the Budget on 8 March.

The Criminal Finances Bill will have its Second Reading in the House of Lords on 9 March, and the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is set to have its Third Reading on 7 March once it completes the Committee Stage.

Elsewhere, in pensions news, the Department for Work and Pensions is currently holding an open consultation on a number of measures suggested in a report on the security and sustainability of Defined Benefit Schemes

Pharma and Health

With reports suggesting that Chancellor Philip Hammond is due to inject extra cash into social care but only under the supervision of the Care Quality Commission, the funding of health and social care is going to dominate this Budget month. The Government will hope it can quell the noises for now, but the given warnings from those in the sector and the involvement of the regulator, this will continue to top the political agenda.

The Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill is about to enter the Commons after completing its passage through the Lords. Meanwhile, the Health Committee will continue its inquiry into Brexit and its impact on health and social care, as well as the all-important suicide prevention inquiry - of particular importance after mental health was highlighted by the Prime Minister in January as a top priority for her administration. 

Tech and Telecoms

The next six weeks will likely bring significant coverage and discussion of the Investigatory Powers Act, as stakeholders and NGOs submit their views to the Home Office consultation on the related draft codes of practice. The Act – which received Royal Assent late last year – was highly controversial and criticised (especially by the Liberal Democrats) for its apparent lack of safeguards to ensure individuals’ privacy and prevent state snooping, plus concerns over bulk data storage. The new codes of practice set out the processes and safeguards governing the use of investigatory powers by public authorities including the police and security and intelligence agencies and will no doubt inspire some discussion within political spheres.

Meanwhile, the Digital Economy Bill is moving towards the end of its time in the House of Lords, as it is heard at Report Stage. A number of amendments have resulted in Government defeats relating to broadband in rural areas, and consumer rights regarding switching mobile phone contracts. No doubt all eyes will be on the Bill’s ‘ping-pong’ stage as the finer points are battled out between the two Houses.  

Transport

The forthcoming Budget is likely to include announcements on the funding of a range of transport infrastructure projects across the country. Political leaders in London will be keen to see an announcement on funding for Crossrail 2 while their counterparts in the North of England will be hoping for an announcement on funding for Northern Powerhouse Rail.

With air pollution rising up the political agenda, the Government may well listen to calls from the Mayor of London and others for action to be taken on polluting diesel vehicles.

In February the Government published the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. The Bill, which includes provisions on autonomous vehicles, electric vehicle charging, civil aviation, vehicle testing and misuse of lasers, will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Monday 6 March.

March will also see the Bus Services Bill have its Second Reading in the House of Communions on Wednesday 1 March. This will be the first opportunity for MPs to debate the Bill, which passed through the House of Lords last year. In the Commons the Government will be seeking to overturn changes made in the Lords that will give all local councils bus franchising powers and to reinstate a ban on local councils setting up bus companies that was rejected by the Lords.

In February 2017 the Government published its long-awaited draft Airports National Policy Statement, preparing the way for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. The Government consultation will run until May 2017, while the Transport Committee has also launched an inquiry.

February also saw the Government launch a consultation on proposals to modernise the UK’s airspace, which will run until May 2017. The Transport Committee has also launched an inquiry. 

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DeHavilland
The DeHavilland Monitoring Team

DeHavilland's Monitoring Consultants enable our clients to cut through the noise and assess changes to the political landscape.